Elegy

Mary Jo Bang, Author
Mary Jo Bang, Author . Graywolf $20 (92p) ISBN 978-1-55597-483-1
Paperback - 92 pages - 978-1-55597-540-1
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In her powerful fifth collection, Bang asks, “What is elegy but the attempt / To rebreathe life/ Into what the gone one once was.” Writing to mourn the death of her adult son, Bang interrogates the elegiac form and demands of it more than it can give, frustrated, over and over again, with memory, which falls pitifully short of life: “Memory is deeply not alive; it's a mock-up/ And this renders it hateful.”

The urgent line breaks of Bang's fractured sentences build their own drama, as if her precisions might determine whether or not she will cross the fissures between what she wants to say and what she can't. Aware that there is no vocabulary equal to conveying the pain of losing a loved one or the struggle to be faithful to the loss, the poet ruefully admits, “That's where things went wrong./ Is went into language.”

Plumbing a world made strange by grief means forsaking the mundane; as a result, there are only a few everyday objects in these poems— an overcoat,roller-skates and Phenobarbital pills. Ostensibly a linear account of a year of sorrow, the structure of the collection suggests rather that grief might be crystalline, the poems accruing around a memory that won't move on: “I say Come Back and you do/ Not do what I want.” While the poet must write and rewrite in order to get her subject right, the mother of a dead child writes to fill the a bottomless chasm.

Like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking , Bang finds no easy consolation, and there is pain for the reader here, too, as when, toward the end of the collection, Bang writes, “Everything Was My Fault / Has been the theme of the song.” Calling to mind Sharon Olds's The Father and Donald Hall's Without , two other harrowing contemporary book-length poetic studies of loss, Bang offers, if not hope, a kind of keeping company, a way, however painful, to go on: “Otherwise no longer exists./ There is only stasis, continually/ Granting ceremony to the moment.” (Oct.)

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